Thoughts on ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the ‘Star Wars’ films, and for good reason. This is where the fun space adventure of the original film becomes something grander: something epic, yet without losing the adventure and excitement of the original.

The film, as the title indicates, shows the Empire hunting the Rebels (something I noticed this time around is that the title scroll’s account of the Empire “driving the Rebels from their base” in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction makes perfect sense, since even though the Death Star was destroyed, the Empire still knows where the Rebels are now. Just the first example of the care that went into the film’s script). We open with the Empire dispatching ‘probe droids’ throughout the galaxy, followed soon by Luke, on the barren ice world of Hoth, being ambushed and dragged off by a huge yeti-like monster. This opening, though not as immediately striking as the original’s, sets the stage at once: we’re now in uncertain territory, with powerful forces lying in wait to prey upon our heroes, who have to rely on each other and, in Luke’s case, his emerging knowledge of the Force.

The cast we met in the first film are back, and their relationships have grown. The characterization here is really fantastic, especially with Han Solo. When we met him in the first film, he was essentially selfish and kind of a prick. Here, he clearly cares about the rebels, but is now seeking to return to his old life to try to square the debts he left behind (he briefly alludes to their having run into a bounty hunter in between films, showing that the as-yet-unseen Jabba is closing in on him). Basically, Han still wants to be able to save his own skin. But he’s grown to the point where he’s willing to risk his life for his friends (as when he rushes out into the blizzard to save Luke, foreshadowing how Luke will later rush to Bespin to save Han). Then from the point where they leave Hoth, his entire motivation is essentially trying to protect Leia and find a way to get her back to the main Rebel force (who have fled to a safe location). This further strips away his remaining selfishness until, even when it looks like he’s about to die, his first thought is still her.

Han really shines as a hero during the long middle section of the film, where, with his ship’s hypderdrive on the fritz, he has to rely on his wits and skill to escape the Empire at sublight speed. This part of the movie creates a real sense of being constantly on the ropes as one by one his gambits manage to only buy a little time for frantic repair attempts before the Empire closes in (by the way, this time around I realized the asteroid field is foreshadowed when the rebellion general comments on how much meteor activity there is in the area).

Meanwhile, Luke is going on his own journey, delving deeper into the Force with his new master Yoda (rightly celebrated not only for his unforgettable personality, but also for the wonderful puppetry that makes him seem little less alive than anyone else). In so doing, Luke learns not only more about the Force, but just how far he might be vulnerable to the influence of the Dark Side.

All the while, we spend much more time with Darth Vader, seeing him pursue the heroes across the galaxy, but always first and foremost after Luke. His almost fanatical pursuit of the Millennium Falcon is, at the end of the day, as a means to lure Luke into a trap.

Like in the first film, all this works fine on a surface level, but when you start to think about it, and especially after you learn the infamous ‘reveal’ at the end, it all takes on a new and stronger significance.

The main thrust of the film is the overwhelming power of the Empire, assuring us right away that, despite the destruction of the Death Star, the villains are still oppressively dangerous. Like in the first film, we have some excellent visual storytelling: early on we see a fleet of Star Destroyers, those same huge, terrifying ships we met in the opening of the first film. Then we see that one of them is being eclipsed by the shadow of something even larger, whereon we cut to a Super Star Destroyer some ten-times the size of the others. Even without the Death Star, the Empire is incredibly powerful.

On the subject of visual storytelling, consider the famous Battle of Hoth that ends the first act: we have the Empire coming out to fight in these huge, lumbering walkers like mechanical elephants. They’re monstrous and seemingly unstoppable, like something out of a kaiju film. Meanwhile, the rebels are just men in trenches, or in aircraft; not that far removed from wars we’re familiar with. Once again, the visuals alone tell us all we need to know about the situation (a side note; this is one reason the stormtroopers wear masks: to convey the faceless conformity of the Empire).

This fight also continues the surprisingly grounded nature of the world; there was care taken in thinking how these ships work, and making them look battered and used. The Rebel base, like the ones in the first film, is crowded and busy, and throughout the film we have plenty of scenes of Han, Leia, and Chewie fiddling with the guts of the Falcon, trying to jury-rig the battered ship into working. We have no idea what they’re doing, but it looks like the sort of thing someone would have to do to fix a real spaceship. There’s one bit where Leia tries to force a stiff part of the ship back into place, then winces as she sucks a pinched finger. It happens incidentally, while she’s talking to Han, but it feels so real because we’ve all had moments like that. It’s just another little detail that makes this world feel so much more alive than most fantasy films (or most non-fantasy films for that matter).

Then, of course, there’s that twist. I don’t think I need to caution you on it; rare is the adult who doesn’t know it. This reveal may rather raise some questions about the earlier film (though I don’t think any that can’t be smoothed over), but that really doesn’t matter compared to just how much it benefits not only this movie but the series as a whole. Luke’s vision in the cave, Yoda’s sad likening him to his father, Vader’s fanatical pursuit of Luke, his arguing to turn him rather than kill him, and the way he holds back during their fight, all of these work fine the first time; you don’t question them, but they then rise to new levels of significance when we learn the truth.

Not only that, but they hint at something else; even as Darth Vader is being one of the most intimidating villains in all of cinema, murdering his subordinates with nothing but wry comments and pursuing and torturing our heroes with cold implacability, this reveal hints that his motives were not wholly malevolent. That, perhaps, there is something else still in there.

All that will be built on in the next film, but for now perhaps an even bigger twist is that the film doesn’t have a happy ending. Most of the heroes escape to fight another day, but they do so wounded in body and spirit, and the future is very much in question. You could have stopped at the end of the first film and people would have been satisfied with the story (though Vader’s escaping would have been a dangling thread people would wonder about). Not so here; here there is clearly an ending still to come.

So, in summary, yes, this is a fantastic movie and one of the best sequels of all time. It takes the original film and builds on it in ways the audience probably didn’t expect, deepening the relationships and themes while giving us more of the same action, adventure, and humor we loved in the first film, but in different ways and different doses. There’s less ship combat and more Force powers, for instance; more monsters and less alien communities. If the first film was a textbook in general storytelling, this one is a textbook in how to do a sequel.

Thoughts on ‘Star Wars’

I have decided to do a total re-watch of the Star Wars films: all ten films (plus the Holiday Special) in order of release. Partly this is out of curiosity, partly because I’ve determined to finally see The Last Jedi now that it’s on Netflix and I want to be fully prepared. Also, I only just realized upon beginning this project how long it’s been since I’ve seen these films: the original trilogy, of course, I saw many times as a kid, and more than once in subsequent years, but I haven’t been back to it for quite a while. As for the prequels, besides The Phantom Menace, I’ve only seen them once, when they first came out. Ditto for The Force Awakens. Rogue One I’ve seen once in its entirety and then when I rewatched it I skipped around to the highlights.

I actually have copies of the original trilogy in their original cuts: they’re not ideally formatted, but they are pretty much what the original theater audiences saw in 1977, 1980, and 1983, respectively, so that’s what I’ll be watching, aiming to see them as much as possible as they were originally viewed.

With that out of the way, here is my impression of the original Star War, now retitled A New Hope.

This may be a controversial opinion, but it’s a really, really good film: just a very enjoyable, action-packed adventure, bursting with creativity. You could, and I’m sure many do, give a whole course on storytelling just from this one film. The opening scene alone is a brilliant piece of visual exposition, letting us know at once who are the good guys, who the bad guys, and how badly the good guys are out-gunned, all without a single line of dialogue.

The plot (which you all know, so I won’t rehash it), is simple and easy to follow; there is a clear goal (destroy the Death Star), a clear condition (get the plans in R2 to the rebels), and a clear consequence for failure (whole planets will be blown up, and a tyrannical Empire will use the threat of more destruction to maintain power). This latter point helps show the thoughtfulness that goes into even such a simple plot as this: the evil plan of the Empire is actually pretty well thought out. A few quick lines of dialogue establish that there is an Imperial Senate that thus far has kept at least a theoretical lid on the Emperor’s power. Later we hear the Emperor has dissolved the senate, gambling that the awful threat of the Death Star will be enough to keep the galaxy in order. That’s a perfectly reasonable set of actions: it’s not just being evil for evil’s sake, but doing evil things as part of a larger goal. It also puts the heroes’ struggle in the larger context that this won’t just remove a single terrible threat, but will also loosen the Emperor’s grip on the galaxy.

Again, all of that is established in about two or three scenes and a few brief lines of dialogue. Moreover, none of it is really necessary to understand in order to follow the film: it’s enough to know that the Death Star is evil and must be destroyed, but paying closer attention reveals deeper levels to the plot. I don’t mean that it’s brilliant or intricate, but it is sturdy and well-put together, and holds up well under scrutiny.

One thing that struck me this time around was how good some of the acting is, especially from veterans like Peter Cushing and Sir Alec Guinness. Look at the subtle change of expression on Guinness’s face when Luke first mentions the name “Obi Wan Kenobi.” Or watch as he silently formulates a plan of action after hearing Leia’s message. It really is kind of amazing that this film, which was, after all, little more than a mid-budget B-picture has two such established powerhouse actors in key roles. Though, in hindsight, it’s no more amazing than anything else about the history of this film.

On the other hand, the three leads are generally no more than serviceable, with Harrison Ford probably being the best and Carrie Fisher being the most awkward (as others have noted, she seems to switch accents at several points in the film). Mark Hamill, I find, starts out the film a little stiff and whiney, but his performance improves as his character grows in confidence and begins to take a more active role in the story. But no one gives a bad performance; they are all serviceable at the very least, and it helps that, one, their characters are all very vivid and well-written, and two, that the three actors have fantastic chemistry with each other. Basically, they all have a lot of personality, and that compensates for some of the weaknesses in the acting. For instance, I love how, when Luke bursts into Leia’s cell disguised in armor, her reaction – while expecting her imminent execution – is to cock a hand on her hip and sneer at his height. Desperate though her position is, she retains her every inch of her poise. This is not just entertaining, but good character writing: she’s a princess, and so has considerable natural authority. We’ll…come back to that issue in a later entry.

I also really like the bit where Han shoots Greeto the alien gangster, preceding it with a sarcastic, though vitriolic quip (yes, upon revisiting the scene, I have to say having Han shoot first is necessary for the scene). Again, it establishes that he is a rather dark character at this point: he lives among people who stab each other in the back at the first opportunity, and he’s perfectly willing to stab them before they can stab him. This stands in stark contrast to the Rebellion characters, who willingly risk their lives for each other and their cause. Again, the scene works on a surface level of establishing that Han is deep in debt and all-but desperate, as well as being a somewhat shady, dangerous character in his own right, though not to the point that we can’t sympathize with him (no one’s going to cry for Greeto), but when you think about it it also provides insights into the motivations and progression of the characters. Again, the film works fine on a surface level, but gains strength from closer scrutiny.

Another thing that stood out to me was just how grounded the world felt, despite the fantastic technology. Surfaces are grimy, dented, and covered in dust. The environments are often dimly lit and full of miscellaneous, but purposeful dressing. There’s realistic-sounding military chatter coming over the soundtrack in the Death Star, and later on the rebel base. The world of the film feels real, even when it doesn’t necessarily look real. Little details like the Stormtroopers chattering with each other, or a pair of low-life aliens having an unintelligible, yet obviously heated discussion in the corner of the cantina, contribute to making this feel like an actual world, where things are going on outside of the view of the camera.

Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of the Force, which is the final element that ties it all together. I won’t go into the question of what is the Force: part of the strength of the film is that it leaves the matter vague. What matters, to my mind, is that there is an element of magic and mysticism in this technologically-driven space adventure, and with it almost an element of religion. This gives the whole story and the actions of the characters greater weight than they would in a straight sci-fi space opera. Their choices don’t just matter with regards to the events of the world, but matter in a larger, more fundamental sense, and doing things one way or another can have unexpected consequences based on their essential moral nature.

On this viewing, I also noticed a few more flaws: the editing is sometimes kinda choppy, with overly-quick scenes and transitions that don’t quite match up. The effects, even absent the special edition upgrade, have aged extremely well; I especially love the model work on the ships, and of course the crazy creativity in all the aliens and robots that fill out the screen in the first act. As others have commented, the final assault on the Death Star goes on a little long, though I don’t really mind that because it both serves to ramp up the tension and because the organization and plan of the assault actually plays out like a legitimate military operation. For me, the biggest problem with the sequence is that it’s about here that the film’s effects budget starts to run out. It still looks pretty good, all things considered, but they’re obviously struggling to work with what they have, and there are some very awkward edits, while Darth Vader’s fighter in particular doesn’t sit well in the scene. Though I don’t suppose anyone really cares because the storytelling in the climax, with Luke hearing Ben’s voice, turning off his computer, and Han joining the battle at the last minute, is just so strong.

Of course, I’m not saying anything a thousand other people haven’t said over the past forty years. Star Wars is one of those movies that just flat-out works on almost every level, for almost every audience. A full description of its virtues would fill a whole book (and I’m sure has on many occasions). Even viewed independently of what came after, it’s just a really, really good film.

The Not Mary Sue

I’m rewatching Kim Possible at the moment, after being away from it for several years, and I’m delighted to find it’s even better than I remember it. It’s not quite in the same league as Phineas and Ferb or My Little Pony, but it is a very solid, very entertaining show anchored by two particularly great leads.

It’s also instructive on how to write an absurdly capable character without her turning into a Mary Sue.

First some definitions: a Mary Sue is a character who is unrealistically perfect, whom all the good characters like, who never has to seriously struggle, and whom the audience is really, really supposed to admire. A textbook example would be Rey from The Force Awakens: the girl who can fly the Millennium Falcon, shoot a blaster, and wield a lightsaber better than anyone even with zero training or experience and who has no flaws to speak of, never seriously fails at anything, and who has everyone from Han Solo to the villain gushing with admiration over her.

Now, Kim Possible, the girl who “can do anything” seems like she would be a classic case of a Mary Sue. She’s a beautiful, popular cheerleader who saves the world as a hobby, has climbed Mt. Everest, swam the English Channel, and maintains a perfect GPA. She frequently saves her loser male sidekick, Ron Stoppable, and has a long rolodex of incredible feats.

But the thing is, Kim isn’t a Mary Sue. On the contrary, despite her exaggerated abilities, she’s a very likable, very believable character. One of the ways they do this is that Kim’s feats, impressive though they are, are limited. She can perform fantastic acrobatics and kung-fu fighting moves, but she still has to put up with things like detention, unpleasant fellow students, and getting butterflies while talking to cute boys. She faces instances of temptation and doesn’t always do the right thing, e.g. when she lies to both Ron and her parents in order to go a party where her crush is attending.

Basically, Kim’s ability to excel doesn’t mean that her life is perfect, or that she herself is perfect. It’s simply a fact about her, like the color of her hair. She still has to make the right choices and still has to deal with day-to-day problems. For instance, Kim’s school rival is the smug Bonnie, who never misses a chance to insult or belittle her. But since they’re both on the cheer-squad, Kim still has to try to get along with her as well as she can.

Likewise, Kim is shown to have clear flaws: she’s very competitive, kind of vain, and a bit of a snob. There’s an episode where she takes over coaching a ten-year olds’ soccer team and drives them so hard that they start crying when she shows up. Not only are these real flaws, ones that cause problems for her and others, but they’re very believable ones for someone of her personality type to have. And, despite her assertions, Kim can’t do anything: she’s a terrible cook, gets very irritated over mundane tasks, and becomes a mess when she gets nervous.

In short, Kim’s not always right, not always on top, and doesn’t always excel. She experiences failure, disappointment, and frustration. She makes mistakes and has to deal with the consequences.

Perhaps most surprising of all, given the evident feminist bent of the show, is how much she needs Ron’s help. It’s true she often has to save him, but that doesn’t mean that Ron is simply useless. On the contrary, he’s often the key to saving the day, and occasionally gets to go on his own adventures. Not only that, but the show repeatedly makes the point that Ron is a major factor in Kim’s success, and that her crime fighting is severely handicapped without him. Best of all, he periodically has to rescue her. Basically, for all that Kim is the star, Ron is really just as important to the story as she is (in some ways more so: his character arc is much more pronounced than hers, so that the show could almost be thought of as more Ron’s story than Kim’s).

Beyond that, they balance each other’s characters very well: she’s an overachiever, he’s an underachiever. She prods him to get serious and work hard, he prods her to relax and have a little perspective. The result is that they have a very charming, very believable relationship: a close friendship that grows into romance over the course of the series, and which culminates in Ron coming into his own as a hero in order to save Kim (it’s honestly a very cool progression and my favorite aspect of the show).

Does any of this make Kim less admirable or less of a role model? On the contrary, it makes her much, much more so. If she simply excelled at everything and was always on top of things, she’d be insufferable. The fact that she does have to struggle, does have to face up to her own flaws, and does sometimes need help makes more human and consequently more likable. Her relationship with Ron, and with it the fact that she isn’t completely self-sufficient, puts her incredible abilities in a human context and gives both her and Ron room to grow as characters.

Kim is really a textbook example of how to avoid making a character a Mary Sue: she can be as absurdly capable as you like, but let her have flaws, let her make mistakes, and above all, have her need someone. In short, let her be a little vulnerable and a little human.

 

How to Write Stupid Characters

Writing my Flat and Complex Characters post, describing the flaws in how Launchpad is written, it struck me that a major problem with him and similar (again, Soos from Gravity Falls) is that their stupidity is done in a very lazy way: they simply say or do whatever is most inappropriate or most idiotic, and yeah we laugh, but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t make for engaging characters. Again, the characters are just being clowns, just trying to make you laugh.

I remember Roger Ebert wrote something that’s always stuck with me. Commenting on A Fish Called Wanda he said, “It’s not funny to watch someone being ridiculous: it’s funny to watch someone do the next logical thing and have it turn out ridiculous.”

Just having people do stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things may get a laugh, but it won’t make the audience want to come back.

So, what’s an example of a stupid character written in a smart way? One of the best is the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.

Doofenshmirtz_Portrait.jpg

Now, this is a very, very smart show, and it’s full of very smart characters: characters who trade jokes about the Trojan War, or existential philosophy, or advanced physics (one song contains the lyrics: “sometimes photons behave like a wave, but they’re particles when you reflect ‘em”). Even the muscle-headed bully is multi-lingual and quotes Voltaire. About the only genuinely stupid major character is Doctor Doofenshmirtz (Candace is a debatable case, since she’s more immature and obsessive than actually stupid). But even Doof’s not just a complete idiot oblivious to the world around him; he’s what we might call stupid in a smart way.

In the first place, there’s the just the fact that Doofenshmirtz is functional. He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself and understands basic concepts and doesn’t need to be practically led by the hand by the other characters (contrast, say, Andy from Parks and Recreation). That’s another way of saying that his stupidity is limited. It applies in certain situations and not in others. Actually, he sometimes makes fairly astute observations, like when he comments on the pointlessness of making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, or when he points out that Perry’s latest escape makes no sense. And, as noted in a previous post, some of his gripes are completely legitimate (e.g. he built a functional laser canon for his childhood science fair, yet lost to a baking soda volcano).

But more important is the fact that Doof’s stupidity is comprehensible. You can follow his thought process, which is usually fairly reasonable except that he’s missed a glaringly obvious factor. For instance, at one point he recounts how he once tried to take over the Tri-State Area with an army of robots. Since he always puts a self-destruct button on everything he makes, he decided the best way to prevent anyone actually pressing it would be to put it somewhere no one could possible reach; the bottom of their feet.

You can see the logic there: no one could reach the self-destruct button there, which means his robots would be practically unstoppable…except for the obvious problem (“And…march!” *BOOM!*).

Or when a new building blocks his view of the drive-in theater across the street, Doof decides to invent a machine to teleport the entire building to a random location…rather than moving his chair to the next window (if he did that, the lamp cord wouldn’t reach, you see).

In other words, Doof‘s stupidity tends to revolve around severely overcomplicating things and missing the obvious. Likewise, he tends to obsess over silly or minor things, like blinking street signs or pelicans, or the kid who beat him at shadow puppets as a child.

A few things to note about all of this. First, allowing for the subjectivity of humor, it’s rather deeper and more sophisticated comedy than just having Doof say or do something idiotic. Because most of us can recognize Doof’s mindset: we’ve all overreacted to silly things, or made simple problems way too complicated because we missed an obvious factor or didn’t want to have to do some specific chore. Doof’s stupidity is something almost all of the audience can relate to, which both makes it much funnier and makes Doof himself a more engaging character.

Relating to that is this brand of stupidity makes sense with regards to Doofenshmirtz’s personality. He’s established to be an emotionally-stunted eccentric genius. Thus, overcomplicating and missing the obvious fits his mind perfectly, as does his obsessive pettiness. Even the fact that he can simultaneously be stupid enough to forget the existence of boats and brilliant enough to bend reality to his whim is consistent with his characterization.

Thus, Doofenshmirtz’s stupidity isn’t just comedy, but fits his character as it’s been established. It’s not the sum-total of his personality, only one notable element that harmonizes with all the rest and influences his reactions in an understandable way.

So, to sum up, a smartly written stupid character has a recognizable thought process, his stupidity fits his established character, and it can’t apply always and in every situation, nor can it be the entirety of the character.

Lazy Writing and Lack of Consequence

Something I’ve noticed about a lot of contemporary films is that they seem to have an almost childish inability to consider real-world consequences. I’m not talking about complex things that the average person wouldn’t think of; I’m talking major factors about how people behave or how the world works.

Let me illustrate with two particularly egregious examples from two popular films.

The first is in The Force Awakens. Midway through the film, the ‘First Order’ activates a weapon that destroys an entire solar system in one shot, wiping out the New Republic (we’ll leave aside the question “so, the Republic ruled over a single solar system and had no assets, presence, fleet, etc. anywhere else?”). Now, there are many, many things wrong with this, including that it’s a lazy attempt to one-up the original Star Wars, and the fact that it’s patently absurd that a small splinter group could create such a monstrosity without anyone in the galaxy being aware of it. For right now, however, we’ll focus on the consequences.

The world-building in the Star Wars sequels is terrible to an embarrassing degree, but the idea seems to be that that First Order is a relatively small, covert group of former Empire troops and officers. In any case, they do not have a great deal of power or presence in the galaxy, only in certain portions of it. They’re like ISIS, for a real-world comparison.

Now, imagine that ISIS got hold of and detonated nuclear weapons in, say, New York, Washington, and London. Millions of people dead, the world rattled. What do you think the reaction would be from the world at large to this kind of monstrosity? The rubble wouldn’t even have begun to settle before half the planet came roaring to their doorsteps. No nation would dare harbor them, and it would only be a matter of time before they were wiped off the face of the globe.

In The Force Awakens, the universe at large apparently ignores the event, leaving the couple-hundred survivors of the Republic to go after the First Order with a fleet of twelve small ships.

You see what I mean? The Force Awakens was written with absolutely no idea of how people and nations actually behave in the real world, or even with the idea that they’re a factor at all. It’s a child’s perspective: whoever has the biggest gun can do whatever he wants. The big kid can demand your lunch money simply because he’s big and can hurt you.

Now, you might say “it’s Star Wars: it’s not supposed to be realistic.” Except that the original film actually did take this sort of thing into account. For one thing, it was conceivable for the Empire to create a weapon like the Death Star because it ruled with an iron fist and controlled most of the galaxy. But even so, the word of the weapon got out before it was quite finished and the Rebellion moved to stop it, being hampered by their own comparative smallness.

What’s more, the film makes it clear that the Death Star is a gamble for the Empire. We learn early on that there is, or has been, an Imperial Senate, which could make trouble for the Emperor if it found out about his plans. Later some of the Imperial officers are shocked to find that the senate has been dissolved and wonder whether they’ll be able to maintain control without it.

So, the original Star Wars, often seen as a simple adventure for children, had a better sense of how the real world works than The Force Awakens.

Now another example: Black Panther (yes, I do rather like picking on that film). The plot of that movie is kicked off (about two-thirds of the way through) when Killmonger returns to Wakanda and takes the throne from T’Challa. We won’t discuss how stupid it was for T’Challa to even accept the challenge in the first place, nor question how our hero managed to lose to a guy who had never trained with the weapons they were fighting with. Let’s just pick up at the point where Killmonger becomes king.

One of the very first things he does is order the destruction of the flowers that convey the Black Panther powers, thereby effectively ending the continuity of the monarchy (again, we won’t discuss how stupid the flower thing is. You starting to see a pattern?). The next thing he does is inform the high council that they’re going to abandon their tradition of isolation and lead a global war of genocide against the white race and anyone else who stands in their way, explicitly promising to kill women and children.

So, a complete outsider who has never lived in that country comes in, assumes the throne, destroys the monarchy, and announces they’re going to abandon all their traditions in favor of mass-murder of the innocents, all in the space of about a day, and no one does anything about it? He doesn’t instantly lose the support of the army, the governing council, the priesthood, or any of the civilian population; they all just go along with it except a handful of die-hard T’Challa loyalists? The only time anyone even questions any of this is when the one lady protests the flower burning until he chokes her into complying.

Again, this is a child’s view of kingship: he’s the king, so he can do whatever he wants and everyone else has to obey. That’s not how real monarchies work. If a guy no one’s heard about comes waltzing in and somehow takes the throne, then suddenly orders them to start a campaign of genocide with nothing better than “I killed this one guy you didn’t like,” he would instantly lose all authority. Assuming the military didn’t rebel against him for ordering them to commit atrocities, the council would decide that someone else actually has a much better claim to be king and depose him.

Heck, something like that happens in the film, with T’Challa’s friends going to the gorilla guy. Realistically, the entire Wakandan government should be knocking on his door begging him to take the throne and promising the support of the entire military. Actually they should never have allowed Killmonger to even approach the throne in the first place, as they guy is practically wearing a neon sign that reads “angry psychopath.”

Real-life kings can’t just arbitrarily order their subjects to do terrible things or abandon all their traditions, or destroy the continuity of the government in the space of a single day and expect their people to put up with it. Even Hitler had to work his way up to genocide through propaganda and building a powerbase, and he still had to give his people an at least semi-plausible pretext for war. Killmonger just goes in and says, “you’re going to murder the innocent because I say so,” and Wakanda is only too happy to comply, even though it’s contrary to how they’ve done things for thousands of years. Considering they’re supposed to be the most civilized and advanced nation in the world, their government structure is more primitive and has fewer checks and balances than that of an actual tribal monarchy.

You see my point: these kinds of big-budget, hi-profile blockbusters all too often read like they were written by children, with only the broadest, vaguest idea of how people behave or how the real world works. Things happen because we say they happen; if we want the bad guy to have a super-duper weapon, he’ll have it. Never mind how he would have gotten it or how the rest of this world would react to his using it. The bad guy is in charge, so he can do whatever he wants, even if it’s to effectively destroy his own government while ordering the army to commit genocide.

This is the kind of thing meant by ‘lazy writing:’ the writers want something to happen, so they simply declare that it is to be, without considering how it fits into the world of the story.

For a contrast, consider Rampage; the goofy video game adaptation starring the Rock. It’s a silly movie, but plot-wise it’s actually fairly solid. For a specific counterexample of what I mean, the entire plot is kicked off by an evil corporation performing illegal genetic experiments. Yes, that old cliché, but note how it proceeds: they don’t just get to do what they want because they’re rich (contrast Ready Player One, where the corporation had it’s own prisons), they have to do their work undercover, on the side. As soon as their secret begins to leak, they have the FBI show up and demand all their computer servers in no uncertain terms, and that’s even with their attempt at a cover story.

A lazy writer would have made them impervious to official harm, leaving our plucky heroes to take them down, maybe giving them their own private military or something equally stupid. This film presents a more realistic image of a fairly normal company run by a sociopath who runs covert illegal operations on the side, but who has to tread carefully lest the law come calling.

Rampage is a film that, for all silliness, was clearly written by adults. The Force Awakens, Black Panther, and similar films feel like they were written by children, or tossed off in a first draft because the writers figured they could rely on the other elements to carry them through.

 

The Difference Between Flat and Complex Characters

Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).

This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.

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Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.

That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.

Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.

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You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).

Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).

So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.

For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.

You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.

Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.

Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.

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Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.

That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.

What’s Wrong with ‘Victoria’

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Victoria. I really love the Victorian era as a historical period, so I ought to love this. But I don’t. It’s not…bad, but it’s not very good either. The actors are good and very well-cast in general, the characters are mostly fairly enjoyable (I especially like the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peale, and Diana Rigg as an ancient battleship of a duchess), and the relationship between Victoria and Albert is played up for all it’s worth. The sets and costumes are very nice to look at.

The trouble is the writing, for two reasons. First is that it’s pretty contrived and very melodramatic, as well as being kind of clunky and heavy-handed.

I previously wrote about the scene where Victoria and Albert, pre-marriage, find her dog, Dash in a snare and somehow it ends with him yelling at her regarding the poor, forgetting the dog entirely. That sort of thing happens fairly often. That’s what I mean by it being heavy handed: the transitions are not properly set up, the characters don’t always act believably to move from one scene to another, and the guiding hand of the writers is visible all-too often.

Or there are complications that show up out of nowhere and do nothing just to pad out the subplots for a little while longer, like the would-be romance between the chef and the dresser is briefly complicated when she finds out he’s been seen talking with another woman. Turns out she’s someone from America trying to hire him for a restaurant. This is wrapped up in two episodes in maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, we never find out just who the woman was, and we move on. It served absolutely no purpose except to drag things out a bit and a gin up a little extraneous drama.

Or characters are ignorant of things they ought to know about: when Victoria gives birth to her first child, in the middle of labor she notices a group of ministers standing outside her door and asks what they’re doing there (they’re ensuring against a substitution). She didn’t notice them at any point in the past few hours? No one thought to let her know about this practice at any point in the past nine months?

Then there are just moments that made my roll my eyes. When Victoria’s beloved dog dies, she walks in and finds his body in the middle of her bedroom. Was no one in charge of looking after him? Did no one check the room to make sure it was ready to receive the Queen? None of the servants had been in there recently? I may be wrong, and it may have happened like that, but…well, I’d lay long odds against it.

Also, the Queen’s household is oddly small: we’re told it measures in the hundreds, but we only ever see the same half-dozen or so servants hanging out in the kitchen.

The historical events are portrayed, but in a slapdash and generally simplified manner. The first assassination attempt is played up as her evil uncle possibly attempting to usurp the throne…which goes nowhere, as the show is constrained by the historical record that the man was just an obsessive lunatic. It plays up the melodrama as much as possible, but since it’s also trying to be somewhat historically accurate it can’t deliver much of a payoff.

So, the show is pretty clunkily written. But I don’t think I would mind that so much if it weren’t for the other problem, which is that it just feels off. The best way I can describe it is that the characters don’t act like Victorians so much as a modern person’s idea of Victorians.

There’s one episode, for instance, when Victoria comes home from opening parliament in her full regalia; mantel, sash, and so on. As she walks in, she drops the mantel casually to the floor, takes off her sash and tosses it aside, and so on. That’s something a modern person would do, but the Queen of England circa 1850 would never imagine doing this (again, none of her servants are on hand to take her very expensive and important regalia for her?).

Likewise there’s the fact that everyone we’re not supposed to like is extremely rude and condescending to Victoria. Now, I can buy that people and politicians of the time would be dubious about an 18-year-old girl ascending to the throne, and I can buy them muttering about her in private, but she’s still the Queen, not to mention that this was a time and situation in which manners were given very high priority: I do not believe that these men would speak to her like this. When Sir Charles Trevelyan is telling the Queen about the Irish situation, he makes a condescending comment about teaching her about it “when she’s finished with her nursery duties.” Again, he’s talking to the Queen of England; why would he make that kind of comment?

The reason is that we’re not supposed to like Trevelyan and having him talk down to our heroine is an easy shortcut to that (because his disregard for the starving Irish isn’t enough, I guess). But it doesn’t feel authentic; it’s the modern trope of the condescending Victorian male who casually talks down to the plucky heroine. This is a way for the writers to signal to us the viewers that, though we are in the Victorian era, we know that is was really a very bad time.

Now, I am perfectly aware that, by our standards, many men in the Victorian era had a very narrow attitude towards women in general. The expectations for what was proper for each sex were very firm, and though there was some flexibility, it came at the price of being conspicuous. Medical science made broad and unjustifiable statements about women’s mental capacity, emotional stability, and so on. In short, the attitudes of the day were not ours and in many cases were simply unjust and wrong.

However, this trope of men being casually rude and dismissive towards women in person rather than in theory (two very different things) is one that I find extremely annoying, as it doesn’t ring true for me. If nothing else, didn’t they have basic manners in the Victorian era?

The thing is, I don’t see this much in actual Victorian literature. Quite the reverse, actually: Victorian characters tend to go out of their way to be complimentary and polite towards women. Take Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance (published between 1852 and 1853). You have numerous female characters of all different personality types. There’s Esther, the heroine, who is quietly sensible, generous, and part way through is made the housekeeper for a large mansion because she is recognized as being intelligent and having very sound judgment. There’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose time is wholly taken up with arranging charities for children in Africa, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Her daughter, Caddy, befriends Esther, marries her dancing instructor, and sets about teaching herself different skills in order to be useful. Then there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, an officious busy-body who goes about doing ‘good works’ that annoy the poor without actually helping them.

This is just a small sample (it’s a Dickens book: there are tons of characters), but the point is the each of these female characters are very active, busy, and hard-working in their own way, no one tells them they need to stay in the kitchen or talks down to them for being women. They’ll tell them off for being foolish, annoying, or troublesome, but the kind of casual rudeness that is de-rigor in contemporary stories set in the Victorian era is, in my experience, all-but unknown in stories actually written in the Victorian era.

Now, let me be clear: I am not claiming this means it didn’t exist. Fiction is not real life, but fiction is a reflection of culture and values that were present in real life. It’s not a record what happened, but it is a record of what people were thinking about. That is why I like looking at fiction from different time periods: it is a more ‘inside view’ than reading historical accounts. The fact that I don’t see this sort of thing in Victorian fiction tells me that either it wasn’t particularly common or that people didn’t think of it much, meaning that it wasn’t taken as an insult (and if you’re going to say that’s because Dickens was a man, I don’t see this sort of thing in Jane Austen – pre-Victorian – or the Bronte sisters – though admittedly I haven’t read much of the latter). Take it for what it’s worth, but in all my Victorian and pre-Victorian reading (which I confess I haven’t done nearly as much of as I would like) I can recall this sneeringly dismissive attitude occurring only a handful of times…and always at the hands of people we’re supposed to dislike. Half they time, they’re women.

In short, I am not saying that this kind of dismissive attitude didn’t exist in the Victorian era. I am saying that, to the extent it did, it certainly was not expressed like this. That’s why this sort of casual rudeness feels very artificial to me, an imposition of modern views onto a pre-modern setting.

There are a lot of things like that in Victoria, from the Obligatory Gay Couple™ to Victoria complaining about post-birth purification and replying to someone referring to her new baby as a gift from God with “God had nothing to do with it.” These strike me as modern sensibilities foisted upon a distinctly pre-modern world, either because the writers weren’t able to project themselves into that mindset, didn’t wish to, or thought the audience wouldn’t go along with it. I find this extremely annoying because it seems unfair to the Victorians that they’re not simply allowed to be themselves and let the audience judge how we like them. Like many contemporary stories set in the past, the main point seems to be to make the modern world look good.

For a counter-example of this sort of thing, I recommend the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, which was content just to let the story play out and allowed the characters to talk and act like people of their time and place (e.g. the only one really complaining of the entail was silly Mrs. Bennet, whom we’re not supposed to take seriously, rather than having Jane and Elizabeth lamenting the unfairness of it all). The 2009 adaptation of Emma did this as well: I suppose writers are a little wary of messing with Miss Austen.

Anyway, that’s my opinion of Victoria: not bad, but kind of shallow and artificial.